Friday, March 17, 2006

Government's fight to keep polluter facts secret wrong

VICTORIA - Why in the world would the B.C. government want to cover up pollution violations in the province?
The public used to get regular reports on the big polluters in the province - the companies and government organizations that violated their permits for discharging wastes.
It didn't seem a big deal. Once every six months or so the government would release a report on the major polluters over the previous period. If companies or public organizations were releasing more waste than allowed under their environmental permits, the public knew about it. The violators had to explain.
Obviously the government has to track the information. Companies and municipalities get permits setting limits on the waste they dump in the air, water and on to the land. There are penalties for going over the limits.
If government is actually enforcing the regulations, it has to gather the emissions data to be sure the rules are being obeyed.
Violations were regularly made public, just as you can walk down to your local courthouse and see who has broken other laws.
But the Campbell government quit providing the reports months after they were elected. And now they are fighting to keep the violations secret, demanding an extraordinary amount of money to provide information that used to be readily available.
The Sierra Legal Defence Fund has been trying for more than two years to get the facts from government.
But the most open and accountable government in Canada, as Gordon Campbell likes to call his administration, would prefer that the polluters' identities stays secret.
If Sierra Legal wants to get the information, the government now says, it will have to pay $173,000 to cover the costs of gathering it, and photocopying 52,000 pages. (Which suggest there is a whole of pollution violations, I suppose.)
Information Commissioner David Loukidelis is investigating, and has the power to reduce or eliminate the charges.
But it's bizarre that is is happening.
The government issues waste permits. Companies get approval to dump so many tonnes of particulate in the air, or so much waste into a river. That's part of a functioning economy, and the limits provide needed protection.
The reports simply cited those organizations that violated their permits - companies that sent too much waste into the sky, municipalities that allowed excess sewage into the rivers.
It's easy to see why keeping that information secret is in the offenders' interests.
But it's hard to see how it's in the public interest. The people who live in a community, or rely on a resource, should know if the local permits for air and water pollution are being violated.
And there's a practical argument for releasing the reports. The publicity is a proven incentive for organizations to clean up their act.
Environment Minister Barry Penner apparently doesn't agree. It wasn't always fair to report on violations, he says, and it sometimes made it harder to get people to obey the law.
That sounds a little weird. Not many companies or municipalities would want to be publicly identified as pollution violators. That threat would encourage efforts to live within their permits.
But even if Penner sees no value in issuing reports voluntarily, that's not an argument for keeping the facts secret when people try and get answers.
The public has a right to know. If a regional district is routinely dumping more sewage into rivers than its allowed, or a company is exceeding its permitted levels for air pollution, why would that be a government secret?
It's hard to see how a government can place itself in such a dumb position.
We are talking about questions of fact. Which organization, companies or government, put out more waste than allowed under their operating permits?
Keeping that secret - or charging ridiculous fees for the information - hurts the public interest, and aligns the government with polluters.
And that's a very strange and wrong choice for a government that hopes to be re-elected in three years.
Footnote: The Liberals were great fans of Freedom of Information requests in opposition, filing about 15 requests a week searching - legitimately - for NDP failures. "Government information belongs to the people, not to government," Gordon Campbell wrote. "All citizens must have timely, effective and affordable access to the documents government keeps." But access has steadily been eroded since the 2001 election.


Anonymous said...

The NDP critic was on 1070 radio today. The news guy kept saying 173,000 for what? One guy mentioned it takes a lot of work to unshred stuff. Most folks that called in figure the government doesn't even have a list. The critic will be bringing it up in question period next week. The fed have a list for such stuff on federal land in BC and everywhere else. It's not that hard to find

Anonymous said...

What the BC Liberals Fear Most

Most of those 52,000 pages should be in e-form. The gov't can post the info and whoever wants it can print their own copies.

The $173K is mearly being put forward as a barrier.

Penner claims that It wasn't always fair to report on violations is pure political puree.

What the BC Liberals are really afraid of is that someone is going to match the polluters list against a BC Elections donor list.

Anonymous said...

Another clear-cut case of putting corporate/special interests ahead of hte public interest. But then again, we the "public" don't finance their election campaigns, do we? All we do is vote.

This just tells us a whole lot about whether it's the voting part or the financing part that really counts in our "democracy" and affirms just how outdated our naive ideas of democracy have become in the age of mass media and sophisticated "communications". specialists.

Essentially, political movements that achieve power and maintain power are no longer those that best serve the public interest, in the balance, but rather, those that can muster enough resources to run more sophisticated issues management and election campaigns.

Thus the BC Liberals are prepared to weather the small political setback that this revelation entails, because they will more than make up for it with the massive election campaign that they will be able to fund with the help of those whom they are protecting.